Who can say when it happened? But at some point within the last decade, a winter ritual called the polar plunge became the seasonal equivalent of Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil peeping out of his hole.
Minnesota, if you haven’t noticed, is in the middle of polar plunge season. A week doesn’t pass by when someone, somewhere in the land of 10,000 lakes, isn’t throwing their scantily clad body into one of those frozen waters.
And few places have embraced this tradition quite so ardently as the Rochester area, where people line up by the hundreds to dive into the waters at Foster Arend Park.
It’s become a cliche and a very lucrative one at that.
This year’s plunge is set to take place at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the park, 4109 East River Road NE, Rochester. So far, 775 people have signed up for the plunge, which is about 100 more than last year’s plunge, when the polar vortex produced a winter so brutal it gave even the hardiest souls pause.
But there’s no disputing its success as a fundraiser. Since Rochester began hosting the event in 2002, close to $1.7 million has been raised for Minnesota Special Olympics. Altogether, 7,279 have done the dive.
On a per plunger basis, no other community has raised more money than the Rochester area, said Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson, one of the principal figures to bring it to Rochester.
“Year after year after year, we’re either one or two in the state, compared to all the other plunges,” he said.
Today, polar plunge season starts in the last week of January and runs until the middle of March, and there are about 20 of them. Owatonna hosts one of the first ones, and one of the last takes place in Grand Rapids.
Minnesota’s tradition is also different than Pennsylvania’s. In the keystone state, people are at the mercy of a rodent’s peculiar ability to see its shadow or not. If he see his shadow and returns to its hole, six more weeks of winter-like weather is predicted.
But a plunge into frigid waters is an act of defiance, a primal scream of sorts, a statement that this winter weather will not stand, and, even if it does, we’ll act as if it’s over.
“It’s that cabin fever antidote,” Torgerson said. “It just seems so far-fetched from what is normal. It’s a rite of passage for some.”
Torgerson said he knows one unnamed organization that requires all its new employees to take the plunge as a form of team-building. But they don’t get the word until they’re hired.
“They don’t get told that until they’re all signed up and delivered,” Torgerson said.
For more information on the Saturday event, check out www.plungemn.org/events/rochester.